Assignment for school: Re-Appropriation

by Thom Kiraly

In our course ‘Culture and Media Studies’ our assignment for this Monday (16/11) was to “Write an analysis of [an] image/video in which you define the concept (e.g. bricolage, counter-bricolage, appropriation or re-appropiation) and how the chosen image is an example of it.

First of all, for those of you who don’t know what any of these terms mean, here’s a quick run-through:
Bricolage: In (very) short it’s an equivalent to DIY. The term is used in a a lot of different subjects, but the main idea is “making do” with what you have at hand, finding alternative uses for it and giving it a new meaning, thus making it your own. Mainly this is used for commodities (safety-pins for punk rockers or layered clothes of different styles) but it can also be used in more abstract ways. MacGyver is the master of bricolage.
Counter-bricolage: When commercial forces use bricolage in a way that is meant to make the product cooler and appeal to an audience. Ripped jeans are a good example.
Appropriation: When you borrow, steal or in some other way use others’ works and use them to create a new, oppostional meaning, different than the one the original was aiming at. This is achieved through juxtapositions and changing of contexts in which the work is used/shown. Examples: iRaq, Yes We Can
Re-appropriation: When mainstream commercial forces, governments, corporations etc. appropriate the works of  oppositional forces, subcultures and countercultures to sell and market coolness (often removing the strong political message in the process).

Since we didn’t need to include all of the concepts I chose to focus on re-appropriation. My examples are these:

re:member ad

re:member ad

I guess you could say it’s just one example since both images are taken from the same campaign, but let’s not care about that.

There are several interesting things to consider while looking at these examples. The first, and also most obvious one, being the re-appropriation of the Fight Club monologue which I’ll include below. That monologue reads as follows:

“You are not your job
You are not how much you have in the bank.
You are not the contents of your wallet.
You are not your fucking Khakis.
You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.
You are the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world.”

The appropriation is more subtle than stealing the monologue word by word. Rather, it works on a level of form and execution. The phrasing is the same in the TV ad as in the original monologue and, provided that you’ve seen (or read) Fight Club, you cannot possibly miss the reference to the film. The words that have been changed are however crucial. This may seem like a no-brainer but I would still like to stress that the things the narrator points out in the ad are very much aimed at an audience likely to want a credit card: the watch, the golf-club membership, the caffe latte, the car, shirt, shoes, sunglasses and tailored suit (as opposed to the “fucking khakis” in the original monologue). It is, of course, also no coincidence that there is no mention whatsoever of money in the ad whereas in the original monologue both the contents of the wallet and the money in the bank are mentioned. To say say that one is not the contents of your wallet may have made sense since it’s a credit card being marketed, but saying that someone is not how much they have in the bank would be suicide.

Secondly; by playing with the monologue in Fight Club to market a credit card it seems that an amusing contradiction is overlooked (or maybe deliberately made invisible): At the end of Fight Club the narrator stands on one of the higher floors in a skyscraper watching the buildings of credit card giants being blown up by his own hands and the financial system as we know it crumble with them. I should however point out that this goes only for the movie version of Fight Club and not the book where instead the bombs  never go off and the narrator shoots himself in the head. Using a reference to a story so deeply critical of credit card companies and the ideologies, institutions and politics creating and supporting them could be seen as risky and unnecessary, but I would rather see it as understandable and essential. By using this reference the ad actively diminishes the importance of that message and tries to remove the dangerous aspect of a world view that Fight Club could foster.
There is a clear connection here between the theory of re-appropriation and that of recuperation created by situationist Guy Debord. Recuperation is more of a sociological theory, but just like with re-appropriation the issue is the process in which radical messages are made into commodities and “safe” objects of mainstream society. Recuperation in this sense can be seen as a more active part of the ongoing class-struggle than re-appropriation.

Thirdly, I would like to point out the ad seen on the billboard. Context cannot be overstated here. The fact that the message “you are not the car you drive” can be seen while driving adds an extra dimension to the message. The consumer is expected to participate, but be aware that what he/she is participating in is a spectacle. The radical message has become a joke to be ironically aware of and concerned about while at the same time ignoring it.

Finally, here’s a video of one of the versions (it’s a recurring piece that changes as the movie goes on) of the original monologue in the film :